Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Pickled Green Tomatoes with a History of Canning and a Glimpse at Grocery Shopping in 19th Century Baltimore

To Pickle Green Tomatoes
Wipe a peck of green tomatoes, slice them & sprinkle them with salt and let them stand two days. Slice 12 small onions, one small tin of ground mustard ¼ lb. mustard seed, 1 oz. of cloves, 1 oz. allspice & 1 oz. of black pepper ground mixed well together—Drain the salt water well for the tomatoes. Put them into a skillet a layer of tomatoes and one of the onions and spices—when the vessel is nearly full cover them with good vinegar, put them on the fire & let them stew, until the Tomatoes look clear (stew 8 or 10 hours).

Recipe Provenance
This recipe comes from a collection of recipes found in a manuscript journal located in the H. Furlong Baldwin Library at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore. The manuscript is attributed to Ann Maria Morris and the date of 1824 is written on the inside cover. The recipe below is one of many from the manuscript that will be included in a book I am writing. The book will contain biographical information about Mrs. Morris, an annotated transcript of the entire manuscript as it was written, and a section of modern recipe adaptations (including this one!).

About Pickles 
A pickle is defined as a food that has been preserved using a strong salt and/or acid content. Often, the food is salted for a series of days to allow the juices to be extracted. Then, the juices are drained and a vinegar pickle is added. The vinegar pickle often contains a large variety of spices such as mustard seed or powder, ginger, allspice, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, black pepper, and dill seed, among other things. Sometimes, sugar is also added.

While many Americans might assume that pickles are just made from cucumbers and served alongside hamburgers, hot dogs and sandwiches, it may be surprising to learn that you can pickle just about anything. Historically, there are recipes for pickling meats, fish, walnuts, nasturtiums, mushrooms,  green corn, beans, peaches, cherries, pineapple, cabbage, beets, carrots, and just about every vegetable or fruit that exists. Before the days of refrigeration, pickling was a good option preserving foods for the upcoming year.

About Canning
Home canning of pickles is something of a novelty in America today. However, it was a common practice well into the 19th century  and beyond, even after commercially canned foods began to appear on the market in the 1820s in America, and even earlier in Europe. The inspiration for creating a method for giving foods a long shelf-life was the Napoleonic Wars. In the late 18th century, the French government's Directory department wanted to promote ways to preserve food for the French troops during the Napoleonic wars. The prize was 12,000 francs. Frenchman, Nicholas Appert (1749-1841),  was determined to win this prize. Appert experimented with ways in which to preserve foods in bottles and found success at it when he realized that foods hermetically sealed in bottles that had been sterilized by boiling would stay fresh for months. Ironically, in Appert's day there was no knowledge of why this worked as Louis Pasteur's discovery of bacteria did not happen for several more decades. 

Appert worked on this project for years. He opened the first canning factory in the world in Massy, a small town south of Paris and wrote a book explaining his bottling method in 1810 called The Art of Preserving All Kinds of Animal and Vegetable Substances for Several Years. The publication of this manual secured Appert the prize.

This is all well and good, and congratulations to Appert. However, home cooks and cookbook authors had already figured this out before Appert published his findings. For example  the recipe, "To Keep Green Peas till Christmas" was published decades before Appert's experiments in 1747 by Hannah Glasse in The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (London). In the recipe, Glasse instructs her readers to seal the empty space in the necks of the bottles with mutton fat, cork them, tie a bladder over the corks. Granted, there is no instruction to boil the bottles prior to filling them. It is possible that those who had a dairy on-site did boil the bottles first based on the knowledge they had of needing to keep everything excessively clean in the dairy to get a better result.

Canning Crosses the Pond
William Underwood came to America from Great Britain in 1817 and established a canning factory in Boston in 1822. Underwood's "Hermetically Sealed Tomatoes" were available by 1835 for $3.25 each per two-pound bottle. This sounds quite expensive to me which may account for the large number of recipes for pickles that can be found in 19th century American cookbooks.

About Pickled Green Tomatoes
Pickled green tomatoes can be made in a variety of ways depending on the pickling liquid, spices, additional vegetables added, and whether or not sugar is added. When sugar is added, the pickle is often called a piccalilli. According to the Oxford Companion to Food, piccalilli is defined as "a sweet mustard pickle of mixed vegetables." Here is an example of a green tomato piccalilli from The Woman Suffrage CookBook by Mrs. Hattie Burr (Boston, 1886):

Mrs. Morris's recipe, alas, does not include sugar, therefore, it is a true pickle, not a piccalilli. Here are some additional 19th century green tomato pickle recipes that are similar to the one Mrs. Morris jotted down in her journal:

1845-The Housekeeper's Assistant by Ann Allen (Boston)

1847-The South Carolina Housewife by Sarah Rutledge

1870-Jennie June's American Cookery Book by Jane C. Croly (New York)

1881-Fifty Years in a Maryland Kitchen by Mrs. B.C. Howard (Baltimore)

1885-La Cuisine Creole by Lafcadio Hearn (New Orleans)

Pickling Supplies Available in 19th Century Baltimore
19th century Baltimore homemakers could have purchased their pickles already made or, if they preferred, they could purchase pickling supplies such as vinegar and mustard from a dealer such as Edwards & Cobb at 20 South Charles St.

01 December 1841, American & Commercial Daily Advertiser

In addition, the 19th century ushered in the ability to purchase some spices pre-ground as opposed to the usual practice of only being able to buy spices whole. Spice take a lot of time to grind and while infinitely tastier freshly-ground, when making large batches of pickles, it was a nice convenience to be able to purchase them already ground. Mrs. Morris would have been able to purchase ground ginger as early as 1824 based on an advertisement in the 13 July edition of the American & Commercial Daily Advertiser. By 1851, and possibly earlier, home cooks were able to purchase a larger variety of ground spices, salt, and mustards, among other items, at Paca Mills at No. 68 Bowly's Wharf:

01 May 1851 American & Commercial Daily Advertiser

Pickled Green Tomatoes: Modern Recipe Adaptation
Yield: About 8 Pints

Step 1: Day One
  • Wash and slice 6 pounds of green tomatoes (or a combination of green and more ripened tomatoes).
  • Lay the tomatoes in layers in a large pan and sprinkle each layer with salt. You will use about 3/4 cup of salt in total.
  • Cover the tomatoes and set them aside for two days to allow their juices to be extracted.
Step 2: Day Three

  • 3 Large Onions, Sliced
  • 2 Tablespoons Ground Mustard Powder
  • 2 Tablespoons Whole Mustard Seed
  • 1/4 Cup Whole Cloves
  • 1/4 Cup Whole Allspice
  • 2 Tablespoons Ground Black Pepper
  • 1 Quart Apple Cider Vinegar 
  1. After two days of soaking in the salt brine, drain all of the salted water out of the tomatoes.
  2. Mix together the spices.
  3. In a large slow cooker, make several layers of the tomatoes, onions, and spices. Repeat making layers until everything is used up.
  4. Add the vinegar to the slow cooker.
  5. Set the temperature to high and set for five hours.
  6. You can use the hot water bath canning method to preserve the pickle.
To Serve: Pick the tomatoes and onions out of the pickle juice to avoid biting down on the whole spices.

Pickled Green Tomatoes

  • Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food (Oxford University Press, 2014)
  • Oxford English Dictionary
  • Smith, Andrew. "Canning and Bottling Tomatoes in Nineteenth Century America." Food History News (Vol. VI, No, 1, Summer 1994).

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